The living room grew more crowded by the minute as relatives and friends of the White family continued to arrive on this cold, overcast September morning in Cheviot Hills. More than two dozen people clutched siddurs and faced east, davening Shacharit at a few minutes past 7 a.m.
Like many tales of mourning, this story was not supposed to end this way -- or to end this soon. Judah White, the young doctor whose battle with cancer became a clarion call for adult stem cell donations, died this month at 39. White, an intensely private person, allowed his suffering to enter the public domain so people could realize that there is no moral controversy attached to adult stem cells, that adult stem cell donation is relatively painless and that these donations are desperately needed to save lives.
White's case now also stands out as an example of the unavoidable imperfection of medical treatments. He died despite getting an adult stem cell transfusion that doctors hoped would help save him.
"We thought he was really going to beat it," said his mother, Martha White, who spearheaded the public outreach both on behalf of her son and to raise awareness among potential donors. In each case, she hoped to address the acute shortage of Jewish donors.
As a result of her work and her son's own generosity, Judah White was profiled in a July 1 Jewish Journal cover story on the acute shortage of adult stem cell donors. He underwent a stem cell transplant at City of Hope in June, and the initial prognosis was good. Doctors suspect it was scarring on his lungs from cancer treatments that ultimately led to his decline and death.
During the traditional gathering at Martha White's house on that damp, unseasonably chilly morning, some mourners wore tefillin and tallit, while others eschewed a kippah altogether. What united them all was sorrow, but there also was a tinge of hope about the cause that Judah White and his mother took on.
"We think adult stem cells work," Martha White said. After the stem-cell transplant, "Judah had good white blood cell counts."
A graduate of Tel Aviv University's Sackler Medical School, Judah White was a resident in internal medicine at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in February 2003.
In 2004, doctors tried to rebuild White's blood system with his own stem cells, which had been extracted and set aside before he underwent chemotherapy. But that procedure didn't work. His cancer came back later that year, just after Rosh Hashanah.
A shortage of Jewish adult stem cell donors was also working against him, so the White family held a stem cell donor drive earlier this year in hope of finding a good match. More than 200 people turned out, which inspired Martha White to consider expanding donor-screening efforts locally.
None of the donors screened at the Whites' home were suitable matches, but the Florida-based Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation found an anonymous donor whose stem cells were considered good enough to try the transplant. The goal was to boost White's immune system so that he'd be strong enough to recover from cancer treatments. Adult stem cells can begin the work of rebuilding a patient's immune system by creating new bone marrow and white blood cells.
At first the transplant seemed to be working. White quickly progressed to eating solid food and taking limited trips outside of his ward. But by the end of July, his condition began deteriorating.
"His lungs were getting rigid because of the scarring [from chemotherapy and radiation] and he couldn't get enough air," Martha White said.
"It was never in my consciousness that he wouldn't make it," said Tamar Tamler, Judah White's former girlfriend.
Judah White died Saturday, Sept. 3.
His story touched many outside the family. More than 450 attended his funeral at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries in Simi Valley, where Martha White works as marketing and sales director.
On Judah White's blog (judahdaniel.blogspot.com), people from around the world continue to post thoughts and feelings in the very space where his family provided daily updates on his condition.
Martha White is still grieving, but her belief in the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells is unshaken. She plans to continue promoting the registration of Jewish donors.
"We're trying to put together the structure for a drive," she said. "It's going to be more than local. One of the things I'd like to do is hold a weeklong countrywide donor drive."
To contact Martha White about her adult stem cell initiative, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. To send donations, please mail to CCJS, 2779 Forrester Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90064.